Book Review: Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alkier, eds. Revelation and the Politics of Apocalyptic Interpretation

Hays, Richard B. and Stefan Alkier, eds. Revelation and the Politics of Apocalyptic Interpretation. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015. 239 pp.; Hb.; $29.95  Link to Baylor

This collection of essays are the result of an interdisciplinary conference hosted by Duke University in October 2010. Hays and Alkier hosted the conference and the papers were revised to include insights from subsequent discussion of the topics at the conference. In the introduction to the volume, Hays lists five important developments which contribute to a shift in hermeneutical thinking on the book of Revelation. First, scholarship has learned a great deal about the diversity in Jewish apocalyptic thought in recent years. Second, the work of Käsemann, Beker and Martyn have highlighted the importance of apocalyptic thinking on the theology of the New Testament. Third, New Testament scholarship is beginning to ask important questions about how the book of Revelation opposes the Roman imperial order. These questions have far-reaching implications for theological and political movements in the modern world. Fourth, the continued development of canonical hermeneutics has raised questions about Revelation as the final book of the New Testament canon. Fifth, biblical studies has continued to develop the practice of intertextual interpretation. As the final book of the canon, Revelation is a “parade example of intertextual text production” (5). Each of the papers in this collection address these issues in various ways.

In a diverse collection such as this, it is important to find points of broad agreement. Hays offers six points of convergence represented by these papers. First, Revelation is to be read as poetic symbolism rather than literal prediction. In fact, a literal prediction method can only lead to disastrous misinterpretations. Second, the symbolism of Revelation is understood best in its intertextual relationship to the Hebrew Bible. Third, the message of Revelation is Christological, depicting Jesus as both crucified and triumphant. Fourth, the book of Revelation calls on its readers to follow Christ’s example through a countercultural, suffering witness to the one God. Fifth, in Revelation there is no separation between the spiritual and political spheres. Finally, points forward to the future hope of God’s triumphant justice. This is the healing of the present world, not its destruction (7-8).

As might be assumed from these points of convergence, the writers in this volume are reacting against overly-literal readings of Revelation which have generated popular fantasy novels and fruitless predictions of impending doom (whether this is the rise of the antichrist or the imminent rapture of the church and the beginning of the tribulation). For the most part these popular interpretations are simply ignored, only Marianne Meye Thompson brings up dispensationalism, and then only in its most lurid form, Hal Lindsey and The Late Great Planet Earth. Her critiques of dispensationalism are fair and she correctly understands dispensationalism as a kind of theological interpretation of Scripture, although one that misunderstands literal interpretation and cut itself off from a cultural understanding of the first century by ignoring the history of interpretation of the book of Revelation (156-7).

She is correct, but she is also engaging with classic dispensationalism rather than the hermeneutical approach progressive dispensationalism. If Hays’s six points of convergence were opened up for discussion at a gathering of academic dispensationalists, all six would be accepted with very little discussion. The challenge would be finding a group of academics willing to self-identify as dispensationalists.

Michael J. Gorman’s introductory chapter (“What Has the Spirit Been Saying? Theological and Hermeneutical Reflections on the Reception/Impact History of the Book of Revelation”). He begins with a classification system plotting interpretations on Revelation along a temporal axis (past, present, future) and a textual strategy (text as code, text as lens). This helps explain the wide variety of interpretations found in Revelation studies (one cannot plot interpretations of Proverbs or Romans on a similar chart). In addition, the highly intertextual nature of Revelation creates a “perfect storm for polyvalence” (20). Gorman then offers seven theses for reading Revelation which emphasize theological interpretation of Scripture, intertextuality and reception history as safeguards from an over-literal, fantastic interpretations. I am not persuaded that Revelation implies the “necessity of something like the fourfold sense of Scripture” (28), but it is true interpretation of any text requires multiple reading strategies (hermeneutical methods, etc.)

Picking up on the thread of intertextuality, Steve Moyise contributes an essay on “Models for Intertextual Interpretation of Revelation.” Moyise has written extensively on the issue of intertextuality in Revelation and provides a “state of the question” in this article. He surveys suggestions for John’s rhetorical purposes from George Caird, Jeff Vogelsesang, Alison Jack, and Robert Royalty as well as suggestions focusing on John’s intertexts from Greg Beale and Richard Bauckham among others. As he concludes, the use of intertextual methods are “permissive rather than prescriptive,” calling for humility when approaching the complexity of the text of Revelation (44-5).

As a specific example, Thomas Hieke discusses “The Reception of Daniel 7 in the Revelation of John.” This detailed study surveys how Daniel 7 was used in early Jewish literature and in the some twenty-one examples in the book of Revelation. He concludes that an intensive knowledge of the text of Daniel 7 leads directly to a better understanding of Revelation (65).

Richard Hays examines the Christology of Revelation in his essay “Faithful Witness, Alpha and Omega: The Identity of Jesus in the Apocalypse of John.” After surveying somem of the data in the book, he suggests a Christological study of Revelation shows the necessity of an intertextual interpretation which demands a canonical approach to the book. Many of Revelation’s Christological assertions are allusions to the Hebrew Bible, so that the whole canon is in view. As an example Hays points to Isaiah 53:7, like a lamb led to slaughter.

Joseph L. Mangina’s contribution (“God, Israel, and Ecclesia in the Apocalypse”) takes the stars and lampstands in Revelation 1 as a starting point to discuss the church as a messianic Israel shaped by God’s and the Lamb’s victory (94). He observes the curious problem that the word ecclesia is absent from Revelation 4-22, and solves the problem by arguing John reserves the term for the audience of the book (the churches of Asia or subsequent generations of the church). The image of the 144.000 “trade on images from the exodus” and display the destiny of Israel in the messianic era (96), but this too is part of Revelation’s vision for the nations.

N. T. Wright discusses “Political Implications of the Revelation to John.” He begins with the observation that Revelation tells the same story as all four gospels tell, that “Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, conquered the power of evil through his death and became the lord of this world” (122). In order to hear this story clearly, Wright reads Revelation 12-14 as a symbolic challenge to Rome. Wright argues Nero is the beast in Revelation 13, but “the real problem is not Nero but that which Nero, for the moment, embodies and expresses” (115). This evil “empire” will emerge in different guises at different times, and what must be opposed by the church at all times. Remarkably, Wright states clearly this anti-empire reading of Revelation does not support either left-wing liberalism or right-wing conservatism. The ground of Christian hope is not in politics, but in our responsibility to bear witness to the world’s true Lord, Jesus (124).

Stefan Alkier also addresses the politics of Revelation in his “Witness or Warrior? How the Book of Revelation Can Help Christians Live Their Political Lives.” Alkier argues against unnamed “violent fundamentalists” who want to take the book of Revelation as an “exhortation to battle” (126). These remain nebulous in the essay, perhaps this is an unnecessary straw man which distracts from an otherwise well-made point. For Alkier, argues Revelation enables its readers to become and stay witnesses, not warriors (127). He supports this by careful attention to the rhetoric of the book and exploring the intertextual relationships within the text. For example, there are clear allusions in Revelation to the book of Joel as well as similarities in macrostructure. As in Joel, Revelation sees God as the destroyer of enemies, not the people of God. Rather than violent response to the empire, vengeance should be left to God (140).

Tobias Nicklas contributes a canonical study of Revelation (“The Apocalypse in the Framework of the Canon”). He begins by arguing Revelation is a third-generation Christian text which stands at the end of the canon and in many ways draws themes from virtually the whole canon. For example, Revelation’s attitude toward state/society questions are a foil to Romans 13 and other passage which led to Tertullian’s prayer for the Empire or Jesus’s somewhat ambiguous view of the empire in Mark 12:13-17. By describing the empire as a satanically empowered dragon the book of Revelation highlights the danger of compromise (147).

Finally, Marianne Meye Thompson presents a study using a theological interpretation model in order to tease out implications for church life today (“Reading What Is Written in the Book of Life: Theological Interpretation of the Book of Revelation Today”). In addition to my comments above on Thompson’s article, she contributes an excellent series of theses on the theology of the book. For example, she says “if Revelation were a sermon, then the biblical text it expounds would not be a prophetic prediction, but the first commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’” (167).  Revelation is a book about worship which Thompson suggestions could be read as a graphic apocalyptic version of Romans 12 (169).

Conclusion. The nine essays in this book do not all address the topic promised by the title of the volume. The title implies the collection is on anti-imperial readings of Revelation, but only two essays directly address that topic. The volume is nevertheless a valuable collection of essays on Revelation.

NB: Thanks to Baylor University Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alkier, eds. Revelation and the Politics of Apocalyptic Interpretation

  1. the apocalypse is prophecy which can only be fulfilled and verified by history and that assumes a correct interpretation – a literal interpretation is the only one that can be trusted

    • I do not disagree with you, but where does Revelation begin to refer to the future? After chapter 1? After chapter 3? After chapter 5? Even after the seven seals is serious option.

      My guess is that you would not be happy with the contents of the book I reviewed in this post…!

      • I am pretty sure I have that book packed away somewhere but I am sure I read it and just like many other did not agree with it – I knowingly read books I don’t agree with just to get their views – I believe most of the apocalypse is already history – if you haven’t looked at my site, I believe john the baptist wrote the first version

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